Fox Business served up a policy-heavy, softball debate last night for the Republican presidential field, offering chances to see real issue discussion, but lacking the fireworks of past outings. Still, we learned a lot from the candidates in this different format, and some did their campaigns a real service with their performances. And then there was John Kasich.
Here’s Starting Line’s thoughts on last night’s Republican debate:
Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz
The two candidates emerging as the favorites for the establishment and conservative front-runner positions did themselves well at the debate. Both strongly articulated their positions on foreign policy, looked relaxed and comfortable in their fourth debate, and easily fended off other candidates’ attacks. Oddly, both won plaudits from the press on one-liners they’ve been using for months – but hey, if it works, it works. Still, a few of Ted Cruz’s new lines seemed to fall flat with the crowd, not getting the laughter and applause he expected. But Cruz is also one of the most improved from the first debate, edging his way into the conversation more and providing sharper, more memorable answers. Rubio’s always been like this, people are just finally starting to notice this past month.
This is the Paul people expected to see way back in the spring of this year: a principled libertarian that would stake out clear, unique positions that would consolidate his hold on a significant chunk of the Republican electorate. Paul probably alienated himself from certain sectors of the Republican base last night, but he helped himself considerably with libertarian-leaners with his criticism of military spending and fiscal policy. His whiny-sounding voice still makes you want to jump off a cliff, but at least he didn’t whine in his answers, instead pointedly taking on the other candidates and effectively contrasting his views with theirs.
Bush was much improved over the last debate, but is it enough? He seemed like a more forceful presence on the debate stage last night, especially when sparring with Paul over foreign policy. Still, debates simply aren’t Bush’s forte, and he’s going to need a different way to build some momentum for himself on the campaign trail before he fades too far to recover in time for the Iowa Caucus.
The Trumpisms are getting old. Trump continues his noble attempt to play the part of a real candidate, presenting a more even-keeled personality rather than the constant put-down artist of debates past. But he still slips into attack mode from time to time, denigrating Kasich and questioning why Fiorina was interrupting people (everyone was). When it came to policy, either vague or specific, Trump often faced silence from the crowd instead of the rambunctious hollering he’s accustomed to. Republicans seem to be tiring of Trump’s word-salad answers. The Trump mania was fun while it lasted, but he needs to start talking more seriously on policy, and not just act more serious in presentation.
People will say he was a winner from the debate because he escaped scrutiny and having to go in-depth on many issues. I don’t believe it. Standing in the background will get him by for a couple more weeks, but he’ll need to act like a serious candidate who understands policy at some point, and he showed last night he has no interest of ever transitioning to that. He showed time and again, especially on a question on big banks (where he reverted to talking points about how America was founded in 1776), that he has no clue what he’s doing in this race. That’ll catch up to him soon enough.
Most thought she did well too, but I saw the same old Fiorina, the one who got a bump in the polls but wasn’t able to capitalize on it. Her performance kept her in the game, but did little to move her ahead. Her complete refusal to directly answer nearly every question she was asked got boring fast, as did her harsh, uncompromising persona.
Fox Business Moderators
Hey guys, we’re not CNBC! See, we’re asking policy questions! Look, we’re not being nasty to the candidates! Praise us! Seriously, Neil Cavuto, get over yourself, there’s no reason to constantly reference how you’re doing things differently from CNBC before, during and after the debate. Because really, they over-corrected. Yes, CNBC was a disaster, but this was way too soft. The nearly-all policy focus was a welcome change, especially on foreign policy, where the Republican field has real, substantive and fascinating differences. But Fox Business’ moderators rarely pushed any candidate to answer the question asked. When every candidate profusely praises you afterward, it means they appreciated you didn’t make them answer the tough questions. That’s not good.
The John Kasich
What a disaster. Kasich complained nonstop, Jim Webb-style about time allocation during the debate, even though he got an even amount. He intentionally got into a fight with Trump, even though he’s gotten smacked down in that matchup before. And Kasich constantly jumped in to defend his moderate stances when he could have waited for more friendly topics to come up. Spending most of the debate talking about how you’re to the left of the most of the field on issues like immigration and Wall Street is an odd way to win Republican votes. He got outright booed by the crowd at one point, showing that while the media may appreciate his more thoughtful, moderate-leaning policy stances, conservatives do not. Kasich badly needs real debate prep before the next round, if he even makes it there. His whiny, overly-aggressive style last night could kill what little momentum he had in the polls. Bring back Chris Christie into the big boy debate, and knock this loser Kasich out of it until he figures out what he’s doing.
by Pat Rynard